Historic Tule Lake Site Threatened by a Proposed Fence

During WWII, Tule Lake was the only camp that had a prison.

Opponents say the fence would ruin the integrity of the World War II site.

By Christine McFadden, Pacific Citizen Correspondent
June 21, 2012

An eight-foot high, three-mile long fence county officials want built around the site of a former World War II Japanese American incarceration center would detract visitors and ruin the memory of the camp, opponents say.

Just the name Tule Lake evokes many different emotions. During WWII, the site, located just outside of Newell, Calif. in Modoc County, was the only camp that had a prison. Those who answered “no-no” to the government’s loyalty questionnaire were sent to Tule Lake.

“Of all the wartime incarceration sites, Tule Lake tells the most extreme story of the government’s abuse of power against people who dared to speak out against the injustice of their incarceration,” said Barbara Takei, whose mother was incarcerated at Tule Lake during WWII.

The fence will be built around the Tule Lake airport — on the site of the former campgrounds — to keep animals off the runway. County officials applied for a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fund the fence and gave a June 4 deadline for responses to the proposal.

So far the response from the Asian Pacific American community has been loud and clear — don’t mess with the integrity of a historic site.

“I find that it’s really ironic and perhaps tragic that a place that essentially fenced in JA citizens within a prison is now potentially not going to be available to them and essentially fences out this place,” said Ron Sundergill, senior director of the Pacific Region Office of the National Park Conservation Association, in a letter to the FAA.

The Tule Lake Committee has been reaching out to organizations and individuals to write letters of protest. The organization also requested the June 4 deadline be pushed back to include feedback from the Tule Lake pilgrimage in the summer.

To date, the FAA has not responded to letters about the proposed fence. Opponents say they will continue fighting to preserve the integrity of the former campsite.

“We must not permit this history to be erased and minimized by destroying the integrity of the site or making it inaccessible to future generations.” said Takei, chief financial officer of the Tule Lake Committee.

The airport land belongs to a local family who has leased the land from the county for the past 50 years, and who would also be the beneficiary.

No information was given as to the exact location of the proposed fence or if construction would avoid tampering with remaining features of the site. Takei said that the purpose of the fence, to separate wildlife from the airport runway, is not the major hazard to the airport runway. The fence would, however be detrimental to the historic campsite, opponents say.

“In terms of a comparison, the Manzanar Historic Site is operated by the National Park Service and there is a true experience of the camp feeling there because it’s all open. The experience of Manzanar is totally different than what would be at Tule Lake,” said Gene Itogawa, who was born in Tule Lake.

Both Manzanar and Tule Lake are recognized as state landmarks in California, but unlike Manzanar, which was designated as a National Historic Site in 1992, Tule Lake has yet to be fully recognized.

Among Tule Lake’s 1,077 acres, only 33 have been designated as a National Historic Landmark (NHL). The fence does not fall within the NHL boundaries. According to Takei, the FAA is asking the California State Historic Preservation Office to determine if the area affected by the fence would still be eligible for NHL designation. 

Designation as an NHL is the highest level of recognition a historic site can obtain, requiring a long, complex process of review. Consultants from Modoc County concluded earlier that Tule Lake is not eligible for listing as an NHL — a finding that the Tule Lake Committee is also protesting.

The committee is raising funds to restore Tule Lake’s structures including its iconic jail, which Takei calls “a powerful symbol of the wartime incarceration.” The jail is included in the 33 acres of NHL land.

Historic artifacts, including some old stovepipes, the outlines of rock gardens created by JA families, and cement pillars that once supported the barracks, remain on-site.

Roger Daniels, a professor emeritus of history from the University of Cincinnati, compared Tule Lake to Gettysburg calling the Civil War battle site a “shrine” and Tule Lake a “site of shame.”

This is not the first time Tule Lake’s land integrity has been compromised. Tule Lake once had a cemetery for those who died in camp.

“After the war, Tule Lake was closed down and the cemetery site was bulldozed and the earth and human remains were used as landfill for local construction projects,” said Takei.

“This is a government body and they’re coming in and claiming, for whatever reason, they need this fence,” said Bruce Embrey, co-chair of the Manzanar Committee. “This is precisely why … it’s so crucial that we make all of the camps National Parks and really ensure that they are preserved.”

A part of the camp pilgrimage experience is the ability to see and feel what former internees did during WWII.

“You just look at it and you think, ‘Oh my God, this thing was massive.’ And it’s because you don’t have any obstructions,” Embrey said. “I think that’s essential to understanding the character of the camps. If they do this [build the fence], this will be a tragedy.” 

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